Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tapu Misa: No one can take our haka away from us

There are times when you just have to feel sorry for the Australians. Admittedly, sympathy isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you watch the Lucky Country's athletes over-achieving with monotonous regularity at yet another Commonwealth Games, hauling in the gold medals as if it was their God-given birthright.

Nevertheless, sympathy ought to be extended, for it has become clear, at least to me, that some Australians are suffering from haka-envy.

Yes, all that glistering gold can't obscure the fact that the Australians not only don't have a haka, poor things, but are working on ways to claim ownership of our national expression of, well, just about everything.

How else to take The Australian's Wayne Smith, an avowed fan of the haka, first complaining in his column that Kiwis are cheapening the haka with overkill, and then claiming that the haka isn't really ours, to do with as we will?

"Maybe the Kiwis don't appreciate this but the haka does not just belong to them any more," writes Smith. "They have taken it to the world and the world has embraced it."

Hang on a minute, sport. Not to be too unsharing, but the world can embrace all it wants - the haka belongs here in Aotearoa.

(And while we're at it, is it our fault the Australians haven't paid enough attention to the original inhabitants of their own country to have developed their own distinctive, indigenous signature wave? I don't think so.)

Still, as I said, I have some sympathy for Smith.

He writes that the mere sound of "kamate, kamate" is enough to send chills down his spine, "and the sight of the All Blacks lining up in formation for their challenge to the Wallabies is easily one of the most stirring sights in rugby."

He allows that the haka performed in Moss Burmester's honour, after he won the gold for the 200m butterfly, was "spine-tingling", that it even inspired the South African swimmers to beat the Australians in the men's 4x100m relay.

But then, he complains, the Kiwis were "at it again" after the women's 4x200m freestyle relay - "not to hail the new Commonwealth champions but the bronze medallists".

Yes, yes, we all know the Aussies can afford to be blase about bronze medals.

But Smith even had a problem with our victorious, gold medal-winning sevens team, performing the haka a mere "half a dozen times" on their victory lap around the Telstra Dome.

He says he doesn't want to see our women's gymnastics team doing the haka (can't imagine why not).

And he seemed to feel that it was somehow wrong that support staff should join in the haka, rather than just "the trim, toned, muscular swimmers".

One of Smith's colleagues, Louise Evans, chimed in with this: "When the All Blacks do the haka before a rugby match, it's thrilling, even terrifying.

"But when a bunch of bare-chested all-whites from the New Zealand swim team do the haka at the pool when they win bronze, they look like they're auditioning for Brokeback Mountain II."

Oh, come on.

It's the very fact that a bunch of bare-chested, white New Zealanders feel the moment enough to launch into an impassioned haka that makes it for me.

But I guess you have to be a Kiwi to understand that.

Are we overdoing it?

It depends on whether you think such cultural expressions should be kept in a glory box and trotted out only for special occasions, or whether you accept that it's become a part of the national psyche, a part of our everyday persona.

If it's overkill, too bad.

In a week of wall-to-wall sports, it's all overkill.

I confess to having some overkill thoughts of my own at the weekend, as I sat for three hours watching Tahiti's national treasure, Gabilou, a 60-ish man who looks more French than Tahitian, and his troupe of virtuoso tamure dancers shaking their tushies in the time-honoured Tahitian way.

I'd been dragged along in the interests of having my mood lifted.

Well, it was either that or stay home to watch the Blues-Brumbies encounter, and risk feeling terminally blue again (sorry, boys - and thanks for proving me wrong).

We took a visitor from Hawaii, who told us that it was virtually impossible to get radio stations in Hawaii to play any kind of Pacific music.

Not the case here, where Gabilou and his legendary string band, the Barefoot Boys, are well-known enough - thanks largely to years of air-play on Auckland's Radio 531pi and CD sales at the Otara Market - to fill the TelstraClear Pacific Centre at Manukau.

It helps that Gabilou and his dancing girls are subsidised by the Tahitian Government to take their culture to the world, which must be why Tahiti's president, Oscar Temaru, was there.

But while I'd definitely had my fill after three hours, there was no denying the mainly brown capacity audience couldn't get enough.

Lord knows how often we'd seen these dances, or heard the songs.

Afterwards I realised that it wasn't just the exotic appeal of those good-looking - and yes, trim and toned - Tahitians that held the audience, but their familiarity.

The dancing girls were a variation of ourselves, a reflection of us.

This is why we're loving No 2 and Sione's Wedding, why we loved bro'Town, however flawed they might be.

They're about us, just as the haka, in all its variations, is about us.

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